In the world of music journalism, to have integrity is to practice transparency and maintain an open mind. That doesn’t mean you have to like every new trend, sound, or artist, but it does mean that a level of respect and understanding needs to be established before passing any worthwhile critique. Rap doesn’t have to sound like anything in particular anymore—Post Malone isn’t Nas and Death Grips is nothing like Outkast—and we should be celebrating such a colorful spectrum of creativity. At the end of the day, what we all value is good music.
That being said, 2017 has been a gripping year for rap so far. Kendrick Lamar solidified his status as one of the most important voices in the genre, Jay-Z bared his soul on his best solo effort in nearly a decade, and the Migos made it abundantly clear that they want their dues. There has been an eclectic blend of new faces, contemporary heavy hitters, and longtime vets pushing a plethora of sounds new and old. Nearly every week a new project dropped that made us reorder and reevaluate our list completely. Like track lists made for the streaming era, there comes a point when a list becomes bloated to the point of detriment. We soon realized that if our aim is to present you with an honest list that best summarizes the year thus far, we could only include releases with a certain level of notoriety and caliber. Below you’ll find some of the most innovative and visceral rap albums of 2017 and our thoughts on these fantastic projects—but it’s worth keeping in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
17. 21 Savage – Issa Album
Last year’s Savage Mode combined some of Metro Boomin’s spookiest instrumentals to date with 21’s deadpan, cold-blooded flow to create a piercing horror movie aesthetic. 21 was in his pocket the entire time, but the resulting tunnel vision had a certain subset of rap fans wanting for more. Issa Album is hardly “happy,” but it does see 21 approach a lot of the same grim content in new ways, sounding more hopeful in his celebration and more lucid in his retrospection. “Nothing New” is a poignant protest track, self-produced standout “Bank Account” is the summer’s newest earworm, and “Famous” is a cinematic intro that sees him torn between pre and post-fame life. Even if it could have benefitted from being trimmed by a few tracks (keep the Lil Yachty karaoke for a random SoundCloud drop), Issa Album is a well-crafted, often endearing album that shows untapped potential from a talented artist who only first picked up a mic in 2015.
16. Freddie Gibbs – You Only Live 2wice
2017 has been a year of reinvigoration for a lot of artists, but of all the artists on this list, Gibbs invokes this sense of redemption most literally. The obvious points of reference are the album name and cover art, which paint Gibbs as a resurrected, Christ-like figure, but the songs themselves live up to this fantastical narrative in a disarmingly poignant manner. Though perhaps a minor blip in the scope of his discography, it’s an important and powerful reset following the acquittal of his sexual assault case last September. Suffering from a broken spirit, this is Gibbs putting the pieces back together in real time, and acts as a necessary transition to tide fans over until the main course later this year, the highly anticipated Piñata follow-up, Bandana.
15. Rich Homie Quan – Back to the Basics
Three years ago, under Birdman’s wing and the Rich Gang stamp, Rich Homie Quan was on his way to becoming a bonafide star. Yet, here we are three years after “Lifestyle” shook the world and Quan’s major label debut is nowhere to be found. In fact, despite his relatively steady mixtape output, there wasn’t even an agreed upon “Quintessential Quan Project” before Back to the Basics. Anyone who’s truly paying attention knows how impressive his performance on Tha Tour was and how big of a moment “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” was, but personal issues soon sidetracked any momentum he had gained as a solo artist. Luckily, Back to the Basics is not only Quan’s best solo work to date, but works as an easy starting point to dive into his discography. At just under 35 minutes, its name rings true to its form. It’s concise, focused, and refreshingly honest, avoiding the mixtape trope of being bogged down by the intimidating 20+ song track lists of past projects. Quan is one of rap’s most impassioned writers, and he’s a master at tweaking his cadence to match the exact tone of his lyrics. He has a knack for directing your empathy even if you can’t fully relate to his circumstance. If Back to the Basics is any indication, Quan’s well-deserved career mulligan should see much success.
14. G Perico – All Blue
Though the oft-imitated south may have usurped the crown that was so often volleyed back and forth between east and west coast rap, grassroots movements foraged by artists like G Perico still exist on both sides of the continent. All Blue follows last year’s Shit Don’t Stop, furthering the neo G-funk sound and proving there’s still room for regional rap in the internet age. Perico shares more than a Jheri Curl and gang affiliation with Eazy-E—he’s perhaps the closest vocal analogue we have right now. Using his distinctive voice with increasing precision, the 28-year old often straddles the line between removed OG and someone who’s still in the dead center of the action. His harrowing narratives are not a condemnation, but rather more of an objective report, detailing accounts of street life with no judgement involved. Beyond a brief mainstream G-Funk renaissance thanks to DJ Mustard and YG, Perico’s bounce isn’t something you’re going to hear much outside of LA. He may not be quite as innovative as fellow Californians Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, but he makes up for it with hyper-regionality and attention to detail.
13. Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers THREE
It’s rare that a “threequel” lives up to its predecessors. That there’s an argument to be made for each Step Brothers project being the best is a testament to Don Trip and Starlito’s success as rappers in and of itself, even if they don’t have the RCAA receipts to back it up. Rich Gang aside, no rap duo in recent memory has chemistry to match that of the two Tennesseans. Trip and ‘Lito fluidly switch from chilling accounts of systemic racism to energetic punchline tracks where they tell detractors “shutdafuckup like Juicy J.” Step Brothers THREE‘s phenomenal production might give it the edge over its predecessors, but regardless of which tape is your favorite, it’s clear that quality control isn’t an issue for this duo.
12. Migos – C U L T U R E
When was the last time a genuine rap group reached genuine stardom? Dipset? G-Unit? Before you make a case for Odd Future and A$AP Mob, remember that these acts are more “collectives” than traditional rap groups. What Migos have accomplished this past year is no small feat, and despite Quavo aggressively flirting with solo fame, longtime fans know just how symbiotic their relationship is (and will likely continue to be). Quavo stole 2016 off of guest verses alone (taking the place of Future and 2 Chainz before him as rap’s go-to for feature spots), but it was almost as if Offset and Takeoff saw Quavo’s success as a solo artist, realized they didn’t want to be left behind, and made a statement with the criminally underrated 3 Way EP. Migos’ music relies on a collective consciousness, and it’s clear how much they value this ability to play off each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Throughout CULTURE, there’s a delicate balance of Quavo harmonizing, Takeoff rattling off rapid-fire rhymes, and Offset switching between a number of smooth, syrupy flows. It’s palpable, electric synergy that’s hard to deny. While “Bad & Boujee” was what propelled Migos to stardom, “T-Shirt” is another crowning achievement for the group because of how well each member plays off the other two, even when the typical formula is tinkered with. 2016 saw 21 Savage take trap to depths that would make Future squirm and Yachty to its most bubblegum, and CULTURE settles one of the last unincorporated territories as the genre’s first truly great group album.
11. Chief Keef – Thot Breaker / Two Zero One Seven
Chief Keef’s canonized discography is hard to pin down. Streaming services like Spotify are plagued with unofficial compilation albums and different projects are listed as being his “studio albums” depending on where you look. Keef “retired” from making music for the better part of 18 months, and it seems this allowed him to hit the metaphorical reset button, grinding that discography confusion to a halt. In a similar fashion to Future’s “double album,” Chief Keef released two projects this year that chronicle two sides of the same artist. Two Zero One Seven demonstrates a continued prowess as a producer as well as further experimentation with flow and melody. Thot Breaker, however, is perhaps Keef’s best and most mature album thus far. Despite its unfortunate name, it presents a vulnerable, soul-searching Keef—a side of him we’ve only gotten glimpses of in the past. A far cry from 20-plus song mixtape offerings, it’s an exercise in emotion, precision, and album-craft from an artist who has previously dropped albums with track lists left unsequenced in alphabetical order. More than anything, these two tapes serve to prove that Keef is best left to his own devices as one of the most versatile and influential rappers of the past decade.
10. Kodak Black – Painting Pictures
What immediately stands out about Painting Pictures is how full everything feels. For an album that boasts 24 different producers over 18 tracks, it’s extremely cohesive and sonically consistent. Though it would have benefited from a track list as concise as last year’s excellent Lil Big Pac, it errs on the side of 2015’s bulkier offering, Institution. However, unlike his previous work, Kodak’s world now feels fully fleshed out. Underneath the slurred bravado, the rapping is as evocative as ever, the hooks are more tangible, and the lush production provides a more vivid canvas for Kodak to “illuskrate.” Kodak has one of the more unique deliveries in contemporary rap, and Painting Pictures is a testament to how he can manipulate that talent to his advantage. “Up in Here’ is a nervous breakdown disguised as aloof machismo, ”Patty Cake” is pure joy distilled into three minutes and 18 seconds, while “Conscious” sees him going toe-to-toe with both the FUTURE and HNDRXX versions of Future as they sing the blues.
9. Playboi Carti – Playboi Carti
There’s something endearing about Playboi Carti—which is probably why rap nerds latched onto him almost two years before he even dropped his debut mixtape. With A$AP Rocky as his mentor and Curren$y as one of his self-proclaimed inspirations, Carti is a playful reinvention of the cloud rap aesthetic that shaped much of his formative years. Though his signing with A$AP Mob late last year seemed like somewhat of a strange move (seeing as Carti hails from Atlanta), it makes perfect sense in retrospect. His earlier work tended to be more traditionally structured, but on Playboi Carti it’s often hard to tell where the chorus ends and verses begin (or if there are verses at all), but the more repetitive, ad-lib-heavy, free-form structure allows Carti to float in, out, on top of, and behind the production at his leisure. It’s 47 minutes of “lean on the rocks” poured and sipped slowly—for Carti, it’s a means of pleasure, not escapism. Playboi Carti isn’t going to leave you with anything profound or completely flip the hip-hop soundscape on its ass, but it’s a relentlessly fun project that will be booming out of portable bluetooth speakers at cramped campsites packed full of twenty-somethings throughout festival season and beyond.
8. Drake – More Life
It’s easy to look at More Life’s success and simply call it a result of its presentation. By now, you’ve probably read at least 40 (no Shebib) think pieces on the expectations Drake set by calling it a “playlist” in the age of streaming. Of course, this fact is important in regard to how it was received by both critics and the public, especially considering that Drake has shoehorned his last three bodies of work into three different categories: If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late is a “mixtape;” Views is an “album;” More Life is a “playlist.” Still, it would be doing More Life a disservice to chalk its success up to format alone. The important lesson here is that not every body of work needs to be “an album’s album” by “an artist’s artist” to succeed, because More Life is a great (sometimes brilliant) body of work even if it supposedly isn’t an “album.” More Life’s format allows it to play to any given mood: it’s just as easy to start at “Portland” or “Lose You” as it is “Free Smoke” or “Passion Fruit.” It gives him the freedom to jump from Atlanta to Toronto to the Caribbean in a matter of a few songs, going head-to-head with the regions’ best influencers while adding his own spin on each individual sound. Not everyone should have to be a Kanye West or a Radiohead to be a considered A Great Artist. Perhaps it’s time for Drake’s fans to come to terms with the fact that maybe he’s better at making individual songs than he is at making traditional, full-on “albums,” and for his critics to admit that maybe it’s OK that Drake (or anyone else, really) is a singles artist. The digital age suits Drake, and More Life is proof of talent just as much as it is proof of concept.
7. BROCKHAMPTON – Saturation
Saturation calls forth Odd Future comparisons in a number of ways. Most obviously, BROCKHAMPTON shares a lot of superficial similarities to the California collective—they’re a group of talented, internet-savvy kids (they actually met on internet forum KanyeToThe) whose music has a wide range of sounds. Their de-facto leader, Kevin Abstract, identifies as gay, and from the rap name to the music itself, he appears to idolize Frank Ocean on multiple levels. Beyond his sheer talent as a singer, rapper, and songwriter, Ocean was the first modern, truly mainstream hip-hop/R&B artists to come out as LGBT, paving the way for budding stars like Abstract to confidently pursue music in a culture that has long been dictated by toxic hyper-masculinity. But beyond the simplicities of the Abstract-Ocean analogue, Saturation is one of the first rap albums that feels post-Blonde. Using songs like “Nikes,” “Ivy,” and “Seigfried” as blueprints, they crafted something that truly sounds like their own. It’s an album that exudes nostalgia while still feeling fresh and youthful. Beyond that, “I just gave my nigga head” is the best rap flex this year (though Nas boasting about eating Chili Cheese Fritos in a helicopter is a close second).
6. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
2 Chainz is turning 40 this year. Though it was ironically on his worst album when Jay-Z said “30’s the new 20,” the sentiment stands all the same. Hip-hop has always been thought of as a young person’s genre (probably because it’s, well, a young genre). So-called “Golden Age” rappers are just hitting middle age, and it’s becoming more and more clear that age isn’t an issue for rappers of a certain caliber. While it may feel like 2 Chainz is part of a younger generation of rappers, he’s actually closer in age to N.W.A. than he is the Migos. But like some sort of Benjamin Button in Polaroid form, rather than fading, 2 Chainz’s imagery only gets more colorful and more vivid with age. On most tracks, an almost Ghostface-esque level of hyper-specificity and natural wit supports what may be the most effortless rapping this side of Lil Wayne’s historic mixtape run. It’s a laser-focus and consistency we’ve never seen from 2 Chainz before, and unlike Jay stating “30’s the new 20” with regard to his performance on Kingdom Come, when 2 Chainz raps “my verses are better and my subject is realer,” he has the receipts to back it up.
5. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
There is a scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon jokingly describes his experiences in fantasy-themed clubs: “You get in there and the music, like, owns you. It’s like that house music.” Vince Staples’ choice of production for Big Fish Theory delivers that same visceral feeling. When “BagBak” dropped as the first single it was met with mixed reception due to the strikingly dissimilar beat, a far cry from the singles on Vince’s 2015 critical darling, Summertime ’06. In context of the album, it’s actually one of the more tame outings on Big Fish Theory. “Crabs in the Bucket,” the intro track featuring Justin Vernon and Kilo Kish, sets the tone from the jump. It emulates the claustrophobic nature of the social media era and plays like Vince is trapped in a fishbowl, forced to view the uncertain nature of the world through the glass. Big Fish Theory is a veracious representation of Vince’s real life attitude towards music. Staples will continue to make music for himself, further exploring the disparate yet intertwined influences that have molded his tastes since childhood. It’s honesty and self expression at its purest, and for that we thank him.
4. Future – FUTURE / HNDRXX
Though released one week apart as two separate bodies of work, FUTURE and HNDRXX are, for all intents and purposes, each one disc of a double album that serves to show two sides of the same artist (think Nelly’s Sweat and Suit): Future is the super trapper, Hendrix is the lovesick rock star. While the former is consistent in its own right, the latter is a moving rumination of love and heartbreak. You can choose to view a song like “My Collection” solely as possessive and scummy—which it without a doubt is in a lot respects—but taken beyond face-value, it’s an admission of insecurities and double standards. By the album’s climax, “Sorry,” this raw anger has dissipated into guilt, apologies, and acceptance of past mistakes. The potential for Future as a pop star has always been there, and fans have been clamoring for more pop/R&B from the Atlantan trendsetter since he began toying with the sound on 2014’s underrated Honest. Unfortunately, the smash-hit from these sets of songs comes in the form of “Mask Off’,” yet another one of Future’s ritualistic odes to designer drugs. As infectious as “Mask Off” is, it’s the exact type of Future song the world doesn’t particularly need any more of. It’s the par-for-the-course, vault-clearing Future we’ve seen since What a Time to Be Alive, not the soul-bearing virtuoso that exists on HNDRXX. Hopefully this commercial success doesn’t deter any of Future’s more experimental ventures down the line—rather, it would be fantastic to see him pivot off the critical acclaim this dual release received and continue to play with album structure and lyrical content in new and innovative ways.
3. Jay-Z – 4:44
It’s hard to listen to 4:44 and ignore the responses to Beyonce’s Lemonade. However, this isn’t solely a reactionary companion piece. At its core, 4:44 is the perfect culmination of Jay’s career up to this point, the type of critic-proof showcase of talent and character that’s eluded him for the better part of a decade. Excluding Watch The Throne, we all know how much scrutiny Jay-Z faces for “dumbing down his lyrics to double his dollars.” Even when his ultimate goal is to empower, he’s ridiculed (see: TIDAL). Choosing to partner with No I.D. for 13 tracks, 4:44 feels like the first time in six years where Jay-Z actually has a platform to air his grievances. The production is timeless, borrowing from contemporary sounds like Magna Carta… Holy Grail did, but without losing the soulful, sample-driven essence of his best work. 4:44 plays like a memoir or open letter in that it gives Jay the chance to address and absolve his sins, providing much-needed catharsis to both the rapper and the listener. It also makes it quite clear that a late-period Jay-Z album doesn’t need to be wildly innovative to be poignant. From the tremble of his delivery to the on-the-nose samples, Jay finally sounds like he needed to make an album—and that’s more than enough to have at the edge of our seats.
2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
DAMN. is the album we always knew Kendrick had in him. At a glance, To Pimp A Butterfly may have seemed like “the one” to top good kid, m.A.A.d city, but it quickly became evident that this wasn’t the case. To Pimp A Butterfly is an ambitious, sprawling record, but also somewhat of a tough one to listen to on a routine basis. Despite its status as a critical darling, it also alienated a sizable portion of his fanbase who missed the listen-anytime-anywhere ease of good kid or the more freeform nature of section.80. DAMN. showcases a new level of storytelling for the Compton rapper, one that strips away any of the training wheels found on his previous efforts. Nothing is spoon-fed and everything is up for interpretation, but unlike Butterfly, DAMN.’s structure doesn’t begin to fall apart as you begin to unravel and unpack it—it only becomes more rewarding and more soul-cleansing upon repeat listens. To find your place in the macro, you need to start with the micro, and that’s exactly what DAMN. is for Kendrick—it’s a compelling close-examination of his psyche on numerous levels.
1. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls
Once guarded and withdrawn, Young Thug continues to transform into a full-blown pop star right before our very eyes. Beautiful Thuggers Girls reveals new facets of his once-enigmatic nature, peeling back the layers of his oft-misunderstood bravado. Love is at the center of this sweeping ode to his (then) fiancee, Jerrika Karlae, but it’s not the fairytale romances we’ve been programmed to strive for. It’s as carnal as it is fragile, seeped in seemingly unhinged promiscuity yet ultimately anchored by his unwavering loyalty to his friends and family. BTG seems to be split into two distinct halves: a flirty, playful side A and a ruminative, down-tempo side B. But this surface-level reading betrays just how intertwined love and lust are for this artist. As he recently posted (then deleted) on Instagram amidst a publicized fight with Rika, his love is often “bipolar,” and this sentiment can be extended to his music. At times, he sounds like Jay-Z, a high school dropout thankful for his riches, proud of his accomplishments, and hopeful that his children maintain their innocence. In other instances, he sounds like Prince, passionately emoting his way through layered, sensual, ballads. Part of BTG even sounds like it’s building on the pop-country stylings of artists like Post Malone, but with grit, heart and pride, Thug manages to turn saccharine soundscapes into poignant anthems. Although it may not be his long-awaited “debut album” (whatever that means in 2017), Thugger’s latest offering is an essential addition to his already impressive catalogue.